Books

Waiting for the biggest prize

Mark Abley May 26 1980
Books

Waiting for the biggest prize

Mark Abley May 26 1980

Waiting for the biggest prize

Books

Mark Abley

Graham Greene’s life has been a constant flight from boredom and despair. It has taken him to more countries than most people could name; it has produced more than 40 books; it has seen him adopt the roles of fire warden and spy, film producer and war correspondent. His curiosity is as endless as his figures of speech: his earliest whiff of opium, in a back street of Haiphong, “was like the first sight of a beautiful woman with whom one realizes that a relationship is possible: somebody whose memory will not be dimmed by a night’s sleep.” Yet Greene has spent most of the past 14 years in Antibes, a resort on the south coast of France. Anything less imprisoning than this bright, airy apartment, open to the Mediterranean, would be difficult to imagine. But the balcony overlooks a fort where Napoleon was once held captive and underneath the windows the traffic hardly stops.

At 75, Greene has just published his 23rd novel, Doctor Fischer of Geneva, and a second volume of memoirs, Ways of Escape. The Toronto firm of Lester and Orpen Dennys (the Dennys is Greene’s niece Louise) has obtained the world rights to Ways of Escape, which is available in Canada now, three months before the British or American publication. “It’s called Ways of Escape because I find it difficult to see how people who don’t write, paint or compose manage to get through life.” He pauses for a moment. “One thinks one has given up writing. But one hasn’t.” Greene’s voice, dry yet mellow, suggests

an eccentric oboe: the Rs are liable to emerge as Ws. He is sitting cross-legged in a deep armchair as the sun spills over a crowded harbor and the living room fills with a clean salt light. It underscores the childlike clarity of his blue eyes.

The new novel is written with the spare grace of an old man who has no time for unnecessary convention. Its narrator hates Dr. Fischer and hatred runs like a frayed seam through

Greene’s work. Wealth and fame have not brought an easy peace of mind; at best, they have made it easier for him to continue an escape that may last as long as life itself. Greene has not lived with his wife for many years. “Strange,” he has written, “the amusements one finds in solitude. I can remember standing for half an hour on the staircase to my bedroom watching two flies make love.” He has always been restless, relentless travel providing inspiration as well as relief from monotony—though not necessarily pleasure. In Haiti, the setting of The Comedians, Greene experienced the frightening tyranny of Papa Doc Duvalier, who became the only head of state to review one of his novels: “Le livre n’est pas bon écrit.” Greene speaks more charitably about Panama, a nation he has grown to love. At the invitation of its leader, Gen. Omar Torrijos, he joined the great Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez as a Panamanian delegate equipped with diplomatic passport at the canal treaty signing in Washington in 1977. He has also paid visits to Canada. “My daughter had a small ranch at Cochrane, west of Calgary. She was married to a French Canadian. I used to take the train west from Montreal—three nights and two days, is that right?” He has also set a short story in Alberta, Dear Dr. Falkenheim, whose narrator lives in Rosy Nuick, a bungalow on the edge of Calgary, and watches the blades of a helicopter decapitate Santa Claus.

It’s 11 o’clock in the morning, a good hour for gin and tonic, and he lopes off to prepare it. A tall man, casually dressed in a zip-up brown sweater, corduroy trousers and large brown slippers, he looks at least 10 years younger than his age. A coffee table lies hidden under an eclectic assortment of new books, new magazines and a well-worn paperback of Don Quixote'. Greene’s tastes are varied and unpredictable. The drink arrives with a slice of lemon fresh from the waste-basket (“Don’t worry, it’s quite clean”) and he settles again in his chair, facing the turbulent sea.

In order to imagine life, a novelist must know it to the bone. In hospital as a young man, Greene contemplated the death of a boy and his mother's terrible grief: “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. This was something which one day I might need.” He wrote his first novel while still a student at Oxford in the early 1920s. Even lonelier in adolescence than most writers, he had been psychoanalyzed at 16—a pleasant escape from school, but no cure for the boredom that would soon drive him to Russian roulette. His brother’s revolver was six-chambered: he played six times. Luck was with him again in 1928, when he decided that unless his third novel, The Man Within, was accepted by a publisher, he would give up forever the wild ambition to write. It was accepted quickly, and it sold well. Yet other early books did not succeed and his lively biography of a much misunderstood poet and rake, the Earl of Rochester, remained in manuscript for more than 40 years after Greene’s publisher rejected it flatly.

In the ’30s, unable to support his wife and two young children by novels alone, he turned to film criticism, writing for the Spectator and for a short-lived publication called Night and Day. His Night and Day review of the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie provoked an immediate lawsuit from 20th Century-

Fox, and was partly responsible for the magazine’s early death. The prosecuting attorney called his article “beastly,” and the lord chief justice agreed it was “simply a gross outrage.” What had Greene done to cause such an uproar? “You’d better not print it even now. I merely said that she waggled her bottom, and appealed more to the middleaged and clergymen than she did to other children.”

Greene has a long association with the cinema, although films, like journalism and theatre, have been principally a diversion from his real business of fiction. Most of his novels have been filmed, sometimes from his own screenplays: the taut, muscular plots and his mastery of suspense are well suited to the cinema. But the all-important tone is difficult to convey visually: the dingy streets and back rooms of his tales are lit up by compassion, sadness and a sar-

donic wit which are all but foreign to the screen. Moreover, Greene explains, “A novel always has to be cut to become a film, and the unimportant scenes in terms of film narrative are often very important in terms of character.” His best film, The Third Man, was conceived as a screenplay, not a book. In the ’50s he co-pi^>duced two films: there are few things Greene has not been willing to try. Alas, he declined an invitation from the film producer Sam Zimbalist to rewrite the last part of the script for a remake of Ben Hur. “You see,” Zimbalist announced, “we find a kind of anticlimax after the Crucifixion.”

After more than half a century of writing novels, Greene claims virtual immunity to the praise or anger of his readers. He professes surprise at the huge success of his previous novel, The Human Factor. “I wasn’t very happy about that book.” Perhaps his acute consciousness of failure spurs him to write well, just as some of his most

memorable characters think themselves damned and do good. Writers, like the guilty, can be their own harshest judges. Adverse criticism hurts “only if it’s from someone I respect: then there’s a momentary distress. This applies to praise, too: it’s only a momentary satisfaction.” When a Swedish journalist asked Greene whether he longed for the Nobel prize, he cheerfully replied that he was looking forward to a bigger prize than that: death.

In religion and in politics he has been drawn to the faiths of desperation. Father Trollope, a priest and former actor under whose instruction the young Greene became a Catholic, confronted him with “the challenge of an inexplicable goodness”—but Trollope was a driven man, “deeply dissatisfied with any future which could be represented as success.” His influence has lasted.

Catholicism in England has never been the religion of a bland establishment; it has, however, offered an occasional refuge for underdogs, victims, men and women out of step with society. For such people Greene reserves a heartfelt compassion. He knows them well.

But with the approach of death he bothers less and less about religious truth, and he resents the label “Catholic writer”: “As I always say, I am a writer who happened to be a Catholic.” In The Honorary Consul, the story of a political kidnapping in South America, published in 1973 (his favorite among his own books), Greene achieved a tentative reconciliation between Catholicism and the Marxist dogma that, 30 years ago, he had felt to be in worldwide competition. Since then he has met Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh and visited the Chile of Salvador Allende, a man he much admired. Greene’s own intelligence is too skeptical, too inquisitive to allow him unswerving allegiance to any political master: he detests oppression of all sorts. In The Honorary Consul a priest, disillusioned with the church’s serene indifference to poverty and tyranny, turns to violence. Father Rivas is a sympathetic character, but his rebellion brings needless death. Greene does not like easy answers.

His thirst for adventure has affected the course of his life no less than his famous Catholicism. It led him to serve as a fire warden during the London blitz, exhilarated by the risk of death, and it took him as a reporter to bitter colonial wars. As a teen-ager he had volunteered unsuccessfully to be a German spy in the Rhineland, then under French occupation; after two years of the Second World War he joined the British Secret Service, becoming Agent 59200 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Unknown to him then, he was following the path of an uncle, another Graham Greene, who had helped to found British Naval Intelligence. When he returned to London from Sierra Leone, Greene served as assistant to Kim Philby, eventually to become notorious as a Russian agent. He maintains an affection for Philby (“I think most people who were in the service do”) and keeps up an occasional correspondence with his former boss: “I had a picture postcard from Havana last year. I imagine he’s active and fairly content.” Greene’s loyalties are not always conventional.

Suddenly he stands up. “Did you happen to see the sky at about 7 o’clock this morning? Most extraordinary sky I’ve ever seen.” He gestures across the balcony toward the sea. “Great pink V in the sky. I think two airplane tracks must have crossed, just in the direction of the rising sun.” The sky is unspectacular now, the mountains across the bay invisible. In the corner of the apartment stands the table where, morning and evening, he writes. On walls not yet disguised by books are a covey of modern paintings and a whimsical picture of an 18th-century Italian diplomat rising over England in a balloon. Spectators on the ground are waving what might be their last farewell.

The aeronautical image remains in his mind. Starting a new book, he remarks, “is rather like a plane on the tarmac. One doesn’t feel one’s going anywhere till the wheels get off the ground. I am very nervy when I’m not writing. One only has a few days of happiness in writing—but one’s not unhappy.” Glory, money, a robust sense of humor, the love and loyalty of his many friends: Greene has much to enjoy. But lanterns flicker through his work: failure and betrayal. They have left scars in his life too, but Greene is a private man, not given to lavish disclosures. His kindly, attentive manner conceals a profound reticence. In London a niece of his had suggested that he was “a rather jolly man.” He smiles at the idea: “The word is one that would never cross my mind.” Yet his books are full of tenderness and humor, and those who love his work must be grateful for his uneasy life. They could forgive Graham Greene if he became a grand old man, basking at his ease, secure in the world’s approval. He would not forgive himself.